David Foster Wallace: An Editor’s Nightmare
It’s been awhile since we talked David Foster Wallace on the blog, and I kind of miss it.
So, even though I’ve long since finished with Infinite Jest, I thought I’d revisit Mr. DFW today and take a look at an entertaining letter he wrote to an editor at Harper’s Magazine. His letter is in reference to an essay he wrote for Harper’s about Franz Kafka.
Remember the grammar quiz that DFW gave to his college students? He’s a grammar nazi if I’ve ever seen one, but DFW also proves that you have to know the rules to break the rules. And you also need to be able to explain your reasoning to your more-than-likely Grammar Nazi editor.
From: David Wallace
To: Joel Lovell, Harper’s [redacted] (Office [redacted])
This is pretty much the best I can do, I think. I feel shi— sticking a lot of what you wanted in FN’s, but I didn’t see any work to work it into the main text w/o having to rewrite whole ¶s and throw the thing’s Styrofoamish weight off.
The deal is this. You’re welcome to this for READINGS if you wish. What I’d ask is that you (or Ms. Rosenbush, whom I respect but fear) not copyedit this like a freshman essay. Idiosyncracies of ital, punctuation, and syntax (“stuff,” “lightbulb” as one word, “i.e.”/”e.g.” without commas after, the colon 4 words after ellipses at the end, etc.) need to be stetted. (A big reason for this is that I want to preserve an oralish, out-loud feel to the remarks so as to protect me from people’s ire at stuff that isn’t expanded on more; for you, the big reason is that I’m not especially psyched to have this run at all, much less to take a blue-skyed 75-degree afternoon futzing with it to bring it into line with your specs, and you should feel obliged and borderline guilty, and I will find a way to harm you or cause you suffering* if you f– with the mechanics of this piece.)
Let Me Know,
* (It may take years for the oportunity to arise. I’m very patient. Think of me as a spider with a phenomenal emotional memory. Ask Charis.)
Wow. I wouldn’t want to be DFW’s editor. He was known to be pretty militant about not letting copyeditors change his writing. Though I’ve done my fair share of nonfiction editing, I have no desire to edit fiction–for this exact reason.
Where is the balance between creativity/artistic freedom and grammar?
(Source: Letters of Note)
(Photo: Steve Rhodes)